George Washington Carver in His Lab, 1930
P. H. Polk, American, 1898–1984
Gelatin silver print
Image: 13 5/8 × 10 9/16 in. (34.6 × 26.8 cm) Sheet: 13 15/16 × 10 15/16 in. (35.4 × 27.8 cm)
Museum purchase funded by Mr. and Mrs. Alexander K. McLanahan in honor of Agnes Moore
Habits of Mind
- COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
• Draw conclusions to describe the attributes of the person depicted.
• Write dialogues for the subject of the photograph using correct punctuation and grammar.
Connecting to the Work of Art
During his forty-five years at Tuskegee Institute, P.H. Polk photographed dozens of notable figures. George Washington Carver was a subject of inexhaustible interest to Polk. As director of Tuskegee’s Agricultural Institute, Carver devoted his life to improving agriculture in the South. Products he derived from crops such as peanuts and soybeans helped free the South’s economy from its dependence on cotton. Polk deeply admired Carver as a scientist, teacher, and artist, and he captured the many aspects of Carver’s personality by photographing him in different settings and poses.
Polk’s portraits of Carver, such as this one taken in his laboratory in 1930, are informal, improvised, and personal. Here, the viewer looks through the scientific apparatus that clutters Carver’s laboratory table to catch him, flask in hand, conducting an experiment. The light focuses attention on the figure and on objects in the foreground, and illuminates Carver’s hands and forehead. Although it seems to be a casual shot, the photograph is actually carefully composed to show Carver as a hard worker and as a wise man.
Prentice Hall Polk, an African-American photographer, created a record of the daily life around him. Polk was born in Bessemer, Alabama, in 1898, and studied at the Tuskegee Institute, founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington as a training ground in the basic trades such as carpentry, plumbing, and agriculture. Although Polk had wanted to become a painter, the school did not offer such training, so instead he became one of the first students in the institute’s new photography department, where he studied the basic theory and techniques of the medium. After marrying and moving to Chicago in the early 1920s, Polk apprenticed with a commercial photographer and acquired a deepened commitment to his trade. In 1927, he returned to the Tuskegee Institute to teach photography. Except for a brief period when he ran his own portrait studio, Polk spent the remainder of his career at the institute and was named its official photographer in 1939.
P.H. Polk was not recognized as an important American artist until the early 1970s when the body of work he had produced between 1920 and 1950 became widely known. In addition to his documentation of George Washington Carver inside and outside of the laboratory, Polk skillfully created studio portraits of family members, the social, political, and intellectual elite around the Institute, and candid portrayals of people from nearby rural communities.
• Discuss the person portrayed in the work of art. What might they have been thinking as they posed for their portraits? Why?
• If the subject in the work of art could talk, what might they say to you?
• How do portraitists give information about the personalities of their subjects?
Play a game called the “30 Second Look”.Look at the work of art for only 30 seconds, trying to observe as much as you can.After the image is removed, list everything you observed. How much did you observe? When the image is shown again, compare your list with what you see.
Observe the work of art more closely. Add details to the above list. For example, if you noticed the man is wearing a suit, you could add “suit with a flower pinned to the lapel”.
Discuss how you can tell this is a photograph. What colors are captured? Hypothesize why this would be a black and white, or monochromatic, photograph?
Describe the lighting. Where do you see shadows or reflections of light?
How would you describe this setting? What type of work would be done here?
What science investigation materials do you recognize? Could any of these materials be used in your classroom science lessons? Which ones?
What do you think the man is doing? What could he be thinking? What might he have done after the photo was taken?
The man depicted in this photograph is George Washington Carver. Using clues from the photograph, draw conclusions about him. You can record your inferences in a graphic organizer.
This photographer, P.H. Polk, deeply admired George Washington Carver. How does the way he photographed Carver reveal this admiration? Explain, using evidence from the work of art.
Research George Washington Carver by using your device or by finding books about him in your school library. One such book might be: George Washington Carver: From Slave to Scientist (Heroes of History
Add details from your research to the graphic organizer created above. Did you discover that he always liked to wear a fresh flower on the lapel of his suit, which you can see in the photograph?
What type of experiment might Carver be conducting in this photograph? Justify your hypothesis with clues from the work of art.
Compare Carver’s lab in the photograph to one you might see in your school or a hospital today?
Hypothesize why he might not be wearing safety goggles or gloves. If you were told that this photograph was taken in 1930, almost 90 years ago, would that change your thoughts on why he wasn’t following safe practices? How?
Research photographs of science labs today and compare this image to them. How are they the same? Different?
If you were to change parts of this photograph to include the safe science practices of today, how would you change it?
• Divide the class into groups. Discuss the portrait and have students determine as much information as they can about the individual characters.
• Using these visual clues, complete a character analysis.
• Have each group develop dialogues and dramatic presentations to share with the class.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.